CHULA VISTA — Bill Virchis was pushing his actors again, forcing them to think, to stretch beyond their reach.
"Why do you start saying 'New York, New York, New York'?" Virchis shouted from the back of Southwestern College's Mayan Hall to the 25 student actors on stage.
"Because he says 'New York,' " said one actor, referring to a character in the musical "Hair."
"Because the induction center is in New York?" said another tentatively.
"Riiight! Now I want to hear that direction in your voices. Where is the induction center?"
When the cast again chanted, "New York, New York, New York . . . " you could hear the difference.
Thinking and stretching are essential elements to Virchis' work ethic, especially stretching.
"If we aren't taking a chance, then why are we here?" he asked during a break in a rehearsal of "Hair" a week ago. Virchis' staging of the so-called "tribal love-rock musical," which premiered in 1968, opened Thursday at Mayan Hall and continues through Nov. 21.
Virchis has earned a reputation in 13 years at Southwestern College for directing unusual shows and for pushing his youthful casts to often-impressive performances.
"He picks wonderful shows and drives you hard," said Josephine Chavez. "In a short, minimum amount of time you really learn something." Chavez, who is working in San Juan Bautista with playwright Luis Valdez, played in "Evita" and "Rosa de Dos Aromas" for Virchis.
"His strong point is visual and movement and conceptual movement," she said. "His rehearsals are rigorous. The shows are a very hectic schedule. But he orchestrates all the talents and brings them together."
If he drives others, Virchis drives no one harder than himself. A native of Mexico City, Virchis did not walk until he was "6 or 7. I had extreme clubfoot," he said.
Virchis estimates that it took 70 operations on each foot before he was able to walk.
His father brought the family to Chula Vista, where Virchis wore braces until the seventh grade. Despite, or perhaps because of, his early physical handicap, movement became one Virchis' strengths.
He became a champion wrestler in high school.
"I was a legend of losing weight," a skill that kept Virchis in the 98-pound class, he said. "I could smell my mother's cooking. I would run while people were eating, and I got quite an appreciation for food, which made me hungry for other things," including theater.
He studied the dramatic arts, especially acting, at Southwestern College, San Diego State University and UCLA. He also studied movement with a master, mime Marcel Marceau.
Virchis returned to Southwestern, where he is chairman of the drama department. There he has made a reputation for producing recent, demanding Broadway musicals.
"If this were an automobile school, I wouldn't want to put out Model T's," he said. "I would want to put out Ferraris. I try to be in the pulse of the times so the students are conscious of what's being done. I mean, Shakespeare did not do Greek classics."
Virchis avoids traditional musicals in favor of what's current, staging "Evita," "The Wiz," "Nine" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." Next year he hopes to present the current Broadway hit "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
"He tackles very creative kinds of shows, shows people usually don't do in an educational setting," said John Newhouse, technical director for Southwestern's drama department. The near-capacity houses at Mayan Hall indicate that there's an audience for such musicals.
"We're attracting audiences who know these aren't going to be the (tried and true) shows they see at Starlight Opera. They know they're going to get something different," Newhouse said.
"Hair," which has no book, fits the category of something different. But the 1960s are foreign to the cast, Virchis found.
"They didn't know anything about the '60s," Virchis said. "They have no idea about the commitment to (Marshall McLuhan's) global village held by that generation of 20 years ago. There's no spirituality today. I have to speak to their basic common sense about their own essence."
To communicate the ideas of freedom and revolt that permeated the '60s, Virchis read the cast rock music lyrics from Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and period poetry.
"Hair" is shoehorned into an increasingly tight schedule for Virchis. Besides teaching theater classes, directing shows and doing the administrative tasks of his work at Southwestern, he is co-director of Old Globe Theatre's bilingual Teatro Meta.
Last month, he directed a Teatro Meta production of "Rosa de Dos Aromas" which played at the Centro Cultural Tijuana. Virchis is also creating a new bilingual theater company, tentatively called Teatro San Diego, which he hopes will present its first play next year.
Then there's wrestling. For years the stage director has helped coach Hilltop High School's wrestling team. He will help out one more year, Virchis said, beginning this week. For him, directing and coaching skills are interchangeable.
"I direct like I coach," he said. "I take a bunch of enthusiastic actors or wrestlers. The wrestler is like a writer; he's writing his own script. He's acting (the part of) a character who has to win. In acting, the character also has to win. He has to win the audience over to his role."